14 01 2010

My name is Sarah Ellis, and I am a second-year PhD student in Theater and Performance Studies at UCLA. I graduated from Duke University in 2008 with a B.A. in Music / Theater Studies and English. I both research and compose musicals.

I have recited that blurb so many times over the course of my two years in Los Angeles now that I practically have it memorized. But I think it’s important to establish a little background before I take you into my world of theatrical compositions. My roommate Roxanne has urged me for months now to start a blog about all my theatrical adventures – seeing and critiquing shows, as well as occasionally composing and working on them myself, in LA and beyond. I hope this blog will be a valuable place for me to work through my ideas, since I often do my best thinking through writing. Hopefully it will be an interesting read for others, as well.

To begin, I didn’t grow up in theater; and I am not, have never been, and probably never will be an actor. (I sometimes feel I lack the historical depth that others who grew up in theater might have, but I’m only 23. I’m working on it!) I grew up in a small NC hometown where I studied dance (pointe, tap, jazz, acrobatics, a little modern and lyrical) and classical piano. I was also an avid reader, a particular fan of classic children’s literature, Romantic and Victorian authors. My parents tell me that I was always captivated by music, everything from the Lawrence Welk Show to Newsies. The first musical I ever saw on stage was West Side Story at the Blumenthal Center in Charlotte, NC, when I was probably 12 or 13. To this day, I still remember my awe at the whirling choreography and pulsating rhythms of “America” from the back row of the auditorium. I was being introduced to some of my future favorites – Stephen Sondheim, Leonard Bernstein, Jerome Robbins, Arthur Laurents – without even realizing it.

I attended a summer program for piano at NC School of the Arts before my junior year of high school, and NC Governor’s School for modern dance before my senior year. These pointed me to a world beyond my hometown, and I was thrilled to be accepted to Duke in 2004. Through a strange string of events, I fell in love with theater – and particularly musical theater – during my years at Duke. I watched the Broadway musical Little Women develop in workshops the fall of my freshman year, and I took my first theater course (musical theater history with John Clum) that spring; all my interests coincided in this art form, and I discovered that, not only did I love musicals, but I was actually pretty good at analyzing them because I had such an interdisciplinary background. Over spring break, I made my first trip to NYC and the mythic Great White Way – and fell in love. The city was terrifying at first, but it was pulsating with life and activity, cultural opportunities and new perspectives. I was hooked.

In summer 2006, I saw over 30 shows with the Duke in London Drama program (again, with John Clum), and in fall 2006, I spent a semester with the Duke in NY Arts program, seeing several shows a week, overcoming my fear of the city, interning with the NY Musical Theater Festival, and composing my first musical along with a friend whom I had met on the first night at Duke, Julia Robertson. Theater had become an addiction. After returning to Duke, Julia and I continued our collaboration, which culminated in a senior distinction project: Intern the Musical, produced in winter 2008. Anthony Kelley and John Clum were our incredible mentors.

Something rather life-changing happened in spring 2007: a class with Broadway producer Manny Azenberg. Manny used to fly down to NC once every two weeks in the spring to teach a course on “Contemporary Theater in Production.” The exact title and course description are irrelevant, though, because Manny offered something much more than a conventional, by-the-book education. We read at least 25 plays in his class, without knowing the titles or playwrights so that we would have no preconceptions. Each student had to write a visceral response: 1 page, single-spaced, for each play. I probably put more thought and effort into this half-credit course than many of the full-credit classes I took at Duke. Instead of agonizing over historical details or literary devices, class discussions centered on the issues raised in the plays – family drama, racism, the purpose and meaning of education – and how these issues played out in our own lives.

Read Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia and Alan Bennett’s The History Boys to understand how this class changed my life; it was an emotional re-education for me. After years of being a workaholic and writing impersonal scholarly analysis, Manny demanded that I pay more attention to the “I” in my writing – and in my everyday life. This course actually brought me to a greater appreciation of my friends and family, with whom I began to spend much more time. I realized that relationships should come first, the work will follow. And it did. Even though I am on a scholarly track towards a PhD now, my writing now incorporates a little more of my own voice and my own visceral reactions thanks to Manny – and I have found that necessary balance between work and relationships. Stoppard was right: “Happiness is equilibrium. Shift your weight.” Manny is a close mentor, friend, and almost a third grandfather to me now. I wouldn’t be where I am without him.

I could go on for pages about the turmoil of choosing between an English and Theater PhD my senior year at Duke, but I will keep it brief: I applied and was accepted to programs in both English and Theater, but I quickly realized that writing my thesis on epistolary constructions in Jane Austen’s literature had become a chore by the end – whereas writing an independent study paper with John Clum on Sondheim’s Company had been incredibly fun and fulfilling. Theater also offered more creative engagement with people, which had become incredibly important to me since Manny’s class, and the opportunity to continue composing. The choice was obvious. So in summer 2008 after graduation, my dad and I drove cross-country to set up a new life in Los Angeles.

Since moving to Los Angeles, I study theater, TA theater history courses, compose, sing with my church choir, and try to attend at least a performance a week. I see a lot of musicals, obviously, but also an array of plays, student productions on campus, UCLA Live events (international theater, music groups, dance companies, and more), LA Phil and LA Opera, etc. I may even include a movie review now and again, or a critique of a critique; I love arguing (and Roxanne loves hearing me argue) with Charles McNulty. Over the next few days, I will be posting reviews (or thoughts) on three shows I saw last weekend in NYC: A Little Night Music, Ragtime, and Next to Normal, as well as their implications for the future of Broadway theater, inspired by a rather sobering conversation I had with Manny during my visit.

Follow me!




4 responses

14 01 2010

Yay, Sarah has a blog!! I’m so excited to follow all of your adventures (misadventures if I’m around). I miss you so much and want to come visit again but law school is one big busy mess. I love it though. Glad to see you’re having lots of theatrical fun!

14 01 2010

I do indeed hope charles mcnulty will find this and realize that for a theater critique & professor he is so vague about critiquing music in musical theater if not aaaaall. TAKE THAT CHUCK. tell it like it is woman.

21 01 2010
The Democratization of Theatre Criticism | Bitter Lemons

[…] received a lovely note from a relatively new Lemon Head named Sarah Taylor Ellis, a UCLA PhD student in Theatre and Performance Studies. She asked us to take a look at her new blog […]

14 01 2012
Celebrating 2 Years of Blogging « Sarah Taylor Ellis

[…] years ago today, I launched my new blogĀ Compositions on Theatre with a Prologue: My roommate Roxanne has urged me for months now to start a blog about all my theatrical adventures […]

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